In an announcement made at the North American International Auto Show, Waymo, the self-driving car startup spun-off from Google in late 2016, said that it is planning to deploy its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans for the first time later this month.
The minivans are expected to hit the roads in Phoenix, Arizona, and Mountain View, California where the company’s self-driving Lexus SUVs have already driven thousands of miles over the past few years. On Monday, Waymo also gave the public its first look at the self-driving Pacificas, which have been tightly under wraps since the deal between Google and Fiat Chrysler was first announced in May 2016.
Waymo says that for the first time, it is producing all the technology that enables its cars to completely drive themselves in-house, which means for the first time, the company is building all of its own sensors, cameras and mapping technology, rather than purchasing parts off the shelf as it had done previously. This would give the company the power to exert more control over its self-driving hardware, as well as reduce the cost to ridiculously cheap levels. Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a speech in Detroit that by building its own LIDAR sensors, for example, the company was eliminating 90 percent off its costs. That means sensors that Google purchased for $75,000 back in 2009 now only cost $7,500 for Waymo to build itself.
Over the years, the cost of high-end LIDAR sensors have dropped precipitously. Velodyne, a top supplier of LIDAR, retails its sensors for $7,999. However, by building its own, or contracting out the manufacturing, Waymo is able to get LIDAR sensors to its exact specifications. For example, Krafcik said the company developed two new types of LIDAR: short range and long range, which allows its vehicles to see objects and people very close to the car, as well as spot tiny objects far away.
Waymo says that it has no interest in becoming an auto parts supplier, like 3M or Delphi, but prefers to forge partnerships with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Chrysler and Honda to purchase fleets of vehicles or retrofit for self-driving capabilities.
In early December, Google essentially conceded that it was dropping its plan to build its own car, and chose to instead refocus its efforts on making the hardware and software needed to power self-driving. Still, it may be too soon to tell if Google is abandoning its plans to build a fleet of driverless cars without steering wheels and pedals.
“Waymo is not a car company, there’s been some confusion on that point. We’re not in business of making better cars, we’re in the business of making better drivers,” Krafcik previously said.